10 Famous Blues Musicians
(Written by Leonardo Pereira)
1. BIG BILL BROONZY (Lee Conley Bradley; 1903 – 1958)
The city of Chicago is constantly associated with the blues and its electric reinvention, but one of its pioneers actually started as an acoustic country blues performer. According to some sources, William Lee Conley Broonzy was born in Arkansas in 1903. Curiously, his first instrument was the fiddle, which he played in local parties, churches and clubs before moving to Chicago in the 1920s.
By that time, Big Bill was playing guitar and accompanying several blues musicians, until he was able to make the first recordings, under his own name, for Paramount Records in 1927, along with John Thomas. House Rent Boogie and Big Bill Blues (as heard on DOCD-5050) are heavily acoustic and “country”; very different from the modern electric sound that he would help pioneer a few years later.
Throughout the 1930s, Big Bill started adding different instrumentation to his songs, like piano, bass and percussion, approximating the music to a more urban and modern sound (rooted in the blues, but with influences of jazz, R&B and ragtime). The culmination of this process was not only the creation of a proto-electric blues music that was more suitable for city audiences, but also the beginning of a very prolific period for Big Bill, as he became an established artist and performer. His style would make a great impact on a new generation of musicians that would help popularize Chicago’s electric blues in the years to come, namely Muddy Waters (who even recorded an entire album comprised of Broonzy’s songs in 1960).
Big Bill recorded and performed tirelessly in the 1940s and 1950s, even touring Europe, where he released several albums. By the time of his death in 1958, he had copyrighted over three hundred songs.
2. SON HOUSE (Eddie James “Son” House, Jr.; 1902 –1988)
Many blues musicians struggled between the mortal pleasures of the music world and the elevated blessings of church life. Son House might have been the epitome of this dichotomy.
Eddie James House, Jr. was born in Coahoma County, Mississippi, in 1902 (though some sources point to a few years before that). He embodied that classic moral conflict between the righteous path of religion and the sinful lifestyle of the blues musician, being a preacher at times while also playing the “devil’s music” at local dances and parties to entertain plantation workers. No wonder his powerful, emotional delivery of songs is unmatched among other Mississippi Delta contemporaries.
Through Charley Patton, another pivotal blues musician from the same region, Son House managed to record for Paramount Records in 1930 (available on DOCD-5002), but with little success. Though poignant versions of My Black Mama and Preachin’ The Blues were captured in those sessions, the recordings came out during the deep economic crisis that overtook the USA and sales were poor. House went back to Mississippi where he continued his routine of working, preaching and playing, until a group of folklorists found him in 1941.
Alan Lomax, along with John Work, traveled south in a joint effort between the Library of Congress and the Fisk University, recording several musicians of Coahoma County in the process. Tipped off by Muddy Waters, whom he had already met and recorded, Lomax looked for Son House and was able to get him to play a few songs in a session that also featured Willie Brown, Fiddlin’ Joe Martin and Leroy Williams (another final session would happen in 1942 and both are fully available on DOCD-5689).
After that, Son House went unnoticed for several years until a few young blues enthusiasts were able to find him in the early 1960s living in New York (where he had moved with his wife in 1943). They reintroduced him into the music world, booked concerts and even got him to record again, gaining well-deserved recognition as one of the most important blues artists of the Mississippi Delta. He died in 1988 after years battling cancer.
3. BLIND WILLIE McTELL (William Samuel McTier; 1898 –1959)
William Samuel McTier was born in Thomson, Georgia, in 1898. He was born blind in one eye and lost his remaining vision by late childhood. Late, he attended schools for the blind in Georgia, New York and Michigan schools for the blind where he learned to read and write in braille (differently from many of his contemporaries, who were constantly not alphabetized). He was also a very active traveler and would frequently move around by himself.
Willie’s mother taught him to play the guitar and he improved his style by learning from neighbors and relatives in Statesboro, where his family had moved. Upon the death of his mother, Willie left home and traveled with carnivals and medicine shows, playing wherever and whenever he could. By the 1920s he was an accomplished musician and had started playing the not-so-common 12-string guitar, which had a bigger and fuller sound, suitable for playing on the noisy streets of a big city.
Beginning in 1927, McTell recorded for several labels, usually under different nicknames to avoid contractual conflicts, but his first recordings for Victor and Columbia are probably the ones that stablished his legacy, with now classic songs like Brokedown Engine, Georgia Rag and Statesboro Blues (all available on DOCD-5677). In the 1930s, he would also record with his wife Ruth Kate Williams, and their repertoire ranged from country blues to gospel and ragtime.
In 1940, John Lomax (Alan’s father) spotted McTell playing on the streets of Atlanta and ended up recording a full session with him (available on BDCD-6001), which is now considered one of the best recordings ever captured by the Library of Congress. In it, you can hear Willie McTell play a great variety of songs on his 12-string guitar, featuring some very beautiful bottleneck work while also discussing some of his techniques.
Even though McTell remained active during the 1940s and 1950s, recording his last session in 1956, he did not live enough to be rediscovered by the college kids of the 1960s. He died in 1959, but his influence was (and still is) immeasurable.
4. MAMIE SMITH (née Robinson; 1891 – 1946)
Mamie Smith was probably the first female blues superstar. Born in 1883 in either New York or Cincinnati (there are no official records on this), she was multitalented, working as a singer, dancer and pianist in vaudeville acts and even becoming a movie actress later in life. However, she is mostly remembered as the first female vocalist to make a blues record at the very beginning of the music industry: Crazy Blues and It’s Right Here for You (If You Don’t Get It, ‘Taint No Fault of Mine), both recorded in 1920 and available on DOCD-5357, were released by Okeh Records and became instant hits.
Many scholars consider this period – especially with the release of Smith’s recordings – as the beginning of a very lucrative music market share designed and advertised directly to Afro-Americans. Crazy Blues, written by Perry Bradford, who also lobbied the record companies hard to take a chance with recorded
blues songs sold a million copies in less than a year and with that record labels realized that Bradford’s hunch for the commercial potential of the black record-buying population was right and started investing in new artists that could replicate such success (and generate even more money).
Accompanied by a jazz band (Her Jazz Hounds), Mamie Smith’s style was modern, urban and in tune with the busy life of the big city, transforming her into a successful performer throughout the decade.
In the early twentieth century, the scenery was very unfavorable for women in the music business, but Smith was able to control her own career, travel with her own crew and have her own band. The commercial success of her recordings allowed her to invest in fine clothes and jewelry, pioneering the “high life” style that is still so tightly connected with the pop music world. Billed as “The Queen of The Blues”, Mamie Smith paved the way for other female singers, especially Bessie Smith, who would outshine her predecessor’s fame in the late 1920s becoming, ironically enough, “The Empress of The Blues”.
Despite all the success and contributions to the music business, Mamie Smith’s later years were not very glamourous. She did participate in one of the very first sound films (Jailhouse Blues) and would continue to act on a few low budget movies. However, Smith’s ill health combined with constant commercial competition with other female singers forced her to pause her musical career a few times. She died in 1946, reportedly penniless, and would only have a headstone on her grave in 2012, when a couple of blues fans (a journalist and an editor) organized a crowdfunding campaign to pay for it.
5. ARTHUR “BIG BOY” CRUDUP (Arthur William Crudup; 1905 –1974)
Of all blues artists that influenced rock and roll, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup must be the one with the tightest connection to the so-called “birth of rock”, even though not many people are familiar with his name.
Born in Mississippi in 1904, he would only start playing guitar in his 30s. Soon he began performing on the streets of Clarksdale before going to Chicago in 1939 as a member of the gospel group Harmonizing Four. He decided to stay in the city and try to make a living as a street performer but was not very successful. Lester Melrose, a talent scout for Bluebird, saw Crudup performing around Chicago and offered him a contract to record for the label. His high-energy style, still very rooted in country blues, captivated the city audience and his recordings generated a good number of sales for Bluebird and its parent company Victor. Crudup’s guitar and voice, accompanied simply by drums and bass, followed the now popular style played by other artists of Chicago. Cool Disposition and Who’s Been Foolin’ You (both available on DOCD-5201) are great examples of the early electric blues that would soon be developed and become so famously associated with that area. Crudup would go on to record eighty sides for Bluebird/Victor and his career was pretty successful, allowing him to tour clubs in the south, playing to audiences comprised mostly of Afro-Americans. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States were very segregated and that reflected on the music scene. But a simple twist of faith would go some way to changing that.
Arthur Crudup recorded an up-tempo, danceable tune called That’s All Right Mama in 1946. The song was actually one of three similar pieces that shared the same melody and had the same kind of arrangement: guitar, drums and string bass (you can actually hear all of them on DOCD-5202). A very young Elvis Presley heard That’s All Right Mama, became a fan and eventually recorded his own version of it for Sun Records in Memphis in 1954. The rest of the story is well documented everywhere: Presley’s recording of the song was his first hit, initiating his highly successful career and (at least to some) officially presenting rock and roll to the world. The combination of the blues with country music in Elvis’ performance represented a huge crossover and inaugurated an era in which several white performers would constantly look for inspiration in the blues. However, Elvis’ success did not extend to Arthur Crudup: he claimed that he never received a fair share of author royalties for Presley’s recording, having to keep regular day jobs in order to make a living.
All this might have been true: on those days, many musicians did not understand how royalty deals and recording contracts worked, being constantly cheated by labels and executives. Despite remaining an active performer, Arthur Crudup would never be truly compensated for the recording of his songs while he was alive. Only years after his death, in 1974, his estate was able to settle an agreement that attempted to correct this.
6. SKIP JAMES (Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James; 1902 –1969)
In the early 1960s, when three young blues enthusiasts found Skip James in a hospital in Mississippi, they knew very little about the man and his life. The recordings made by Paramount Records in 1931 (heard in full on DOCD-5005) were pretty much the only evidence that such a musician had existed.
“Eerie” is a constant adjective attached to James’ musical work, and listening to such classics as Devil Got My Woman and Hard Times Killin’ Floor Blues leaves little trace of doubt when it comes to the uniqueness of his style.
Skip James used different guitar tunings, played complex patterns with a three-finger style and sang with a falsetto voice. In addition to all that, his lyrics about the devil, cruel women and flat-out hard times could be seen as a poignant soundtrack to the Depression era in which they were written.
Right after recording those eighteen powerful performances for Paramount, James disappeared. No one knew his whereabouts or details about his life, until those aforementioned young men miraculously found him.
Nehemiah Curtis James was born in Bentonia, Mississippi, in 1902. He briefly dealt with bootlegging (as his father also did before becoming a preacher) and learned guitar techniques by listening to Henry Stuckey, a local musician. In early 1931, he auditioned to a talent scout for Paramount and went to Grafton, Wisconsin, to record the now historic sessions. James hoped that music would release him from manual work, but as the Depression era deepened, record sales were low and he went into obscurity for the next thirty years.
His songs, however, with their dark tones and tales, heavily impressed a new generation of musicians who would eventually be responsible for James’ return to the music world. In the 1960s, his early recordings were reissued to great acclaim, he cut a few new albums and was able to tour. Unfortunately, James was already sick from cancer by that time and was constantly in need of medical care (a situation he partly described in Washington D.C. Hospital Center Blues) He died of that disease in 1969, leaving a brief but incredible body of work.
7. BUKKA WHITE (Washington White; 1906 –1977)
In 1962, the then unknown singer Bob Dylan recorded a version of Fixin’ to Die Blues to be released in his first album for Columbia Records. It had recently been re-issued for the first time on Sam Charters’ groundbreaking vinyl LP ‘The Country Blues’. The original performance, released thirty years before, was almost an afterthought: Bukka White wrote it in studio, after his other songs failed to impress Victor RCA. Years later, the same Fixin’ to Die Blues would inspire young musicians John Fahey and Ed Denson to find White and convince him to resume his musical career.
Booker Washington T. White was born in Mississippi and started playing the fiddle at local dances. Inspired by Charley Patton, he learned to play the guitar and, like Son House, favored the metal bodied National resonator guitar, which he usually played with the addition of a bottleneck. His slide techniques, combined with his loud gritty voice, created a dynamic and energetic kind of sound, even though he was rarely accompanied by other musicians. White made his first recordings for both Victor and Vocalion in the early 1930s, but his song Shake ‘Em Down, released by the latter, was the first to become a minor hit in 1937 while he served time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary (also known as Parchman Farm) for an apparent assault. In 1939, he recorded two sessions for the Library of Congress (available in full on DOCD-5679) while still in jail and chronicled some aspects of his life as a prisoner on Parchman Farm Blues.
After leaving the penitentiary, White worked regular jobs and kept playing occasionally, even recording some of his most famous compositions again in 1940. He would also support the career of a promising young blues artist who happened to be his cousin: B.B. King. In the 1960s, Fahey contacted White while he was an employee at a tank factory in Memphis and offered him a new record deal. He was suddenly out of obscurity and able to enjoy a second phase of his career that would last until his death in 1977.
8. MEMPHIS MINNIE (Lizzie Douglas; 1897 –1973)
Lizzie Douglas, born in 1897, was a precocious talent: by the age of 11, she could play both the guitar and the banjo, becoming a constant entertainer at local parties. At 13, she ran away from her home in Mississippi and moved to Memphis, seduced by the lights and nightlife of the vibrant Beale Street. Homeless and presenting herself as “Kid” Douglas, a childhood nickname, she started playing on street corners and quickly created a good artistic reputation for herself.
Her street performances reportedly led her to join the famous Ringling Brothers Circus and she traveled with them until 1920.
Douglas then returned to Memphis and its evolving blues scene, marrying Joe McCoy, another local musician, in 1929. They started performing together until a talent scout from Columbia spotted them and offered a recording contract. The couple made their first recordings for the label in New York that same year (available on DOCD-5028) as “Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie”, a name she would then adopt for the rest of her career.
By this time, Minnie was already an accomplished guitar player and singer, sharing vocal duties with her husband in several songs and having her first hit with Bumble Bee.
That song alone became so successful, that she would eventually cut other versions, released by different labels, in the following years. Amounting a great repertoire, comprised of many self-penned compositions, Kansas Joe & Memphis Minnie were responsible for several blues classics like If You See My Red Rooster, When the Levee Breaks and Crazy Cryin’ Blues, to name a few.
After divorcing Joe McCoy (who was neither her first husband, nor her last) in 1935, Minnie continued to perform as a solo artist and was one of the very rare women in a field dominated by male guitar players. Her recordings became more varied in style, departing from country blues and venturing into jazz territory, as heard for example on Dragging My Heart Around (available on BDCD-6009). Despite the several adversities that she faced (sexism and racism included), Minnie managed to become a solid performer, just as great and influential as her male counterparts. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that she might have been a better and more innovative guitar player than many of her fellow musicians. In his autobiography, for example, Big Bill Broonzy even recounts the episode in which he engaged on a guitar-playing contest with Minnie, only to be completely outplayed by her in a Chicago blues club.
Memphis Minnie’s recording career was vast and varied, but she retired from performing in the mid-1950s when her health started to decline. She died in 1973 after suffering a stroke.
9. LIGHTNIN’ HOPKINS (Samuel John Hopkins (1912 – 1982)
Learning the blues from his cousin, Texas Alexander, and inspired by the great Blind Lemon Jefferson, Samuel John Hopkins started playing guitar at a very early age. Born in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, his long and enduring career began while accompanying Blind Lemon at church gatherings, something that Jefferson would rarely allow other musicians to do.
In the 1940s, Hopkins was living in Houston when a talent scout from Aladdin Records offered him a recording session for the label; he accepted the offer and went to LA, where he recorded a few sides with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith. Billed as “Lightnin’”, so the duo could be marketed as Thunder & Lightnin’, Hopkins recorded some of the songs that would constantly make appearances in his discography throughout the years, like Katie Mae Blues and Short Haired Woman.
Despite releasing his first work with another musician, Lightnin’ Hopkins developed his style after years playing unaccompanied, easily drifting between different genres, playing either acoustic or electric guitar. His singing, heavily based on “talking blues”, and his freewheeling guitar playing gave his songs an improvisational quality that could equally impress and confuse session musicians. However, these characteristics did not stop Hopkins from recording for several labels (sometimes simultaneously and often the same songs), with or without a supporting band. His premise was simple: instead of engaging in a long-term recording contract, he would insist on having full upfront payments before every single session. That way, he could simply offer his songs to any label interested in releasing them and, considering the lucrative market for this kind of music, there were plenty.
Hopkins managed to maintain this lifestyle for years, until being located by blues scholar Samuel Charters, who recorded an acoustic session with him in 1959 for Folkways Records. Soon after that, Lightnin’ Hopkins became a hero to the folk revival community, recording many albums and performing constantly during the 1960s and 1970s.
Maybe because of his detachment from record labels in general, his discography can be quite confusing for beginners. It is estimated that, by the time of his death in 1982, Lightnin’ Hopkins had recorded over 800 songs, a few of which can be heard on Document’s The Remaining Titles, Volume 1 (DOCD – 5609).
10. ROOSEVELT SYKES (Roosevelt Sykes 1906 – 1983)
The image of a blues musician holding a guitar is pretty much a cliché. However, blues pianists were also very popular in the pre-war years and many consider Roosevelt Sykes as one of the style’s greatest innovators.
He was born in Elmer, Arkansas, in 1906 and, at age 15, went out on the road to play his repertoire full of double-entendre songs at bars and roadhouses, where whiskey was served directly from the barrels (hence, “barrelhouses”). These places would usually have a pianist playing sped up versions of the blues that would be suitable for dancing (hence, “barrelhouse blues”). Sykes was a master of the genre and his travels eventually took him to St. Louis, Missouri, where he would later be spotted by a talent scout and sent to New York to record for Okeh Records in 1929.
His first successful recording was 44 Blues, followed closely by Boot That Thing (both available on DOCD). His manic, energetic playing, especially on the latter, sounds almost like a blueprint to what would eventually become rock and roll twenty years later. After his first sessions for Okeh, Sykes started recording for several different labels in the 1930s. His first big period of success, though, came when he signed with Decca in 1934 and released several tracks under the moniker “The Honeydripper”. The name seemed to fit the persona: a smooth, sharply dressed piano player who always had a cigar hanging from his mouth and sang danceable risqué numbers (like Dirty Mother For You) as well as mellow slow blues (Soft and Mellow).
In the 1940s, Roosevelt Sykes signed with Bluebird and started recording with an assembled group called The Honeydrippers, modernizing the sound of his music with the inclusion of different instruments. By the end of that decade, Sykes’ style had evolved to a bigger urban sound, with full band arrangements that included trumpet, clarinet and sax, as heard on many tracks of his Complete Recorded Works Vol. 8 (BDCD-6048).
In the end, he was one of the few blues artists to have a successful career in both the pre-war and post-war periods, recording and performing prolifically. He died in New Orleans in 1983 after suffering a heart attack.